Sunday, July 13, 2014

On Teaching

I've used the following in my teaching -- since 1986 or so onwards. Obviously, this list got fleshed out over time. It is a result of my own learning of the subject of teaching. 

I am humbly putting this forward to teachers in architecture here and I hope they would be useful to those who want teaching in architecture to excel. In fact, on a larger level, this set of points is used to promote "design thinking" -- and so is useful wherever designing is done. Be it in architecture or software. I have taught both.

1. Demonstrate learning in front of the students. Acknowledge your lack of knowledge in some areas honestly in front of them and then rectify those in their presence. Design/Invent something or the other in front of them. Then demolish what you did, if so needed, if they did not work. Your students will understand the contrast of the two ends of this process and do the learning for themselves: They will learn both the excitement when you started on your invention. And also the maturity when you demolished it -- it conveys quite clearly that designs can fail, and good designing requires iterative thinking. Software designers, do this so often -- that they have got a name for such iterations. They call it "agile" development. I use the number of times a student iterate in his/her thinking as a a good measure of their work -- and even have used it for giving them marks,  which all academic institutions insist on (More on "marks" later)

2. Respect students... well, not just students ... but everyone. Respect is the default state. Let them work hard, really hard to prove that they are to be disrespected. You should only reluctantly award negative points for them, and slowly let them earn their disrespect. If they do something positive, be hasty to reverse the negative points you gave. That is the only marking one needs to do. I often do not like to give marks to student works as per the needs of the academy. It promotes silly competition -- and devalues students who are slow in their gestation.  Running after "marks" often teaches them to run after "money" later on ... Both are bye-products of honest search for excellence

3. Students have to rise up and go beyond you, the teacher. Set examples. But let the examples be only the starting points and not the ending points. If they consider you as a stopping point, all you would be doing is to teach them your level of mediocrity. If you are to be stopping point, ensure that you are very convincing to convey to the student that it is just a temporary one

4. Keep your other anxieties and worries and family problems outside. If you see that they could invade into your class, then be honest and tell the students one sentence that you are disturbed temporarily. They will look at you as an honest human, in touch with your feelings. Be empathetic to your class too: There are far too many hormones, etc. floating around in these students in that age group. There are just too many unwanted social pressure, parental stress, peer pressure, budding romances, etc that they have. Be real to their feelings too. Never deny anyone their feelings. Try to understand some of the underlying causes of their feelings and possibly your intervention at those underlying causes could help -- but never tell anyone that their feelings are wrong

5. It is very rare for an excellent architect to be also an excellent teacher. Excel in your subject of teaching when you teach. You can surely be an excellent architect when you work as an architect. 

How much ever you think your works as an architect are great, and is a result of some neat thinking -- the end work should not be the focus. The thinking you used can be. Be surely proud of your thinking, knowledge and the processes you use. Honest pride. Pride that others can check the reasons for.  

But always state that good work is a bye-product and often a serendipity. Too many good architects with really excellent thinking ended up with bad works only because there were scoundrels and mediocre people who were in the execution team, and there were other issues way beyond the control of the architect. 

And in case of really good works, there would often be touching stories of modest people who did their part in the team but whose contribution did not surface and get to be known.

6. Do not throw your age at the students. They too would one day be your age. Possibly with a more rewarding journey than yours. Their grandchildren could even possibly end up being older than yours. Age does not necessarily equate to wisdom. I sometimes do a mental exercise right in the beginning of their session, to reduce their traditional Indian "awe" of teachers. (Will explain this exercise later) A better approach is to get to understand their issues deeply, come down to their level and then grow along with them with you. Take them along to a much higher standard -- and leave them. And ask them to go even beyond. You are like a trained pacer who is next to an amateur in a Marathon

7. Safeguard and promote the right context. Most of the teaching I do is not about the subject itself. It is setting up the context for the subject to surface in the minds of the students on its own. So lot of time is spent in showing students how to argue out points. Promote debate. Show them how to distinguish between senseless arguments and focused replies.  I often give lots of exercises to weed out logical fallacies (Lot of neat material available on the Internet) 

Possibly setting the context is often the only thing one need to do -- I am a big fan of the talks of Sir Ken Robinson on TED. Listen to his advice carefully

8. Ensure that the student own their learning. When I look back, the things that I remember and take pride in, are those that I believe I have learned myself -- with seemingly no help from my teachers. But now that I have grown older, I am so humbled by my own teachers: For they actually allowed me to think that it was me who was owning the learning. The truth is that the teachers of course had contributed. They had setup all the background work for me to honestly believe that I did it all on my own. And then they stepped aside. 

Teaching is often a thankless job. That is part of the deal. The thank-yous will surely come later. The real "earning" of a teacher comes in much much later. I have had students, some of them whom I had not even noticed when I taught them, contacting me on Facebook etc and thanking me effusively, sometimes at odd hours, after years... saying things like "That talk you gave then. It just made sense to me. I hadn't understood it then. I am so grateful" That kept me going as a teacher

9. Indulge in rhetoric. But not repetition. Rhetoric allows you to centrally come to a point from many different directions. Rhetoric can also get boring -- especially to those students who got convinced about the point and you went around again reinforcing it using another route.  Rhetoric of course makes lectures often one-sided and lengthy. I am still struggling with this point and have not got it fully right. 

However, I noticed one side-effect of good rhetoric: Though It makes a class terribly one-sided (the students just listen, not many participate) but then I often set in motion a lot of interactivity and debate among them after I leave the class. Real learning happens with our students outside the class, in the canteen, in the streets .... give them enough material in your rhetoric for them to interact there

I abhor teachers, who put up material such as a chart, or a power-point and has absolutely nothing else to say about the topic being taught. No rhetoric. Nothing. That is not teaching. That is like telling the student "I have not done my work. I don't have enough material to be convincing in my teaching" The disrespect given by the students can even make them hostile to the subject itself

10. Do not objectify a class.  There are individuals in there -- I have never believed in stereotypes or generalizations. More so, when it comes to students in a class. Stereotypes/collectives usually leads to fallacies of reification and so on. Be empathetic to the individuals listening to you.

In a class, each is listening in his or her own way. The way each mind works varies quite a bit. When you place a topic in front of a class, this individual here is internally asking "Why? Why should this work?" The person at another end is saying "What? What is this all about?"  Another one: "How? How does this work? Show me the steps" Someone else is mulling over: "What else? What else can be done in this situation" and so on. 

To an untrained teacher, all students seem to be just one "average" person. That is a myth. The average student does not exist. Stereotypes of many colleges are plain wrong and unjust to those who want to bloom.  That is why I do not agree to be so well sharply defined for a lecture that you lose the objective and the sensitivity to this point. Often that introduces rigidity. Instead, the teacher should be good at the subject matter, and the thinking that supports the logic of the subject. That is more critical than a "written" lesson-plan. The teachers should be able to nimbly change his/her rhetoric depending on who finally did turn up in the class

There is a limit to how much material one can "push" into a class. Do not hold the image of "pushing" when teaching.

The analogue that a teacher needs to hold is that of "pull" ... look at a bunch of individuals who pull  the material from you. Encourage different kinds of pull, by keeping in mind the above set of questions that may occur in the minds of your individuals in the audience. Do not expect everyone to do the pulling -- do not expect a miracle. There is never complete attention in a class. But if sufficient pulling does happen, they will then help you by becoming agents for pulling others into becoming interested in your talks.  When you design your rhetoric into your speech, often you need to do it as answers to these kind of questions in the minds of your students.

In due course of time, there is cross-pollination among the students. The student who was asking the "why?" question would sow the same kind of curiosity in the student who habitually asks "how?" and so on and so forth. That is a very rich way for students to learn. That is also the reason, there should be rich interaction between students from different years in the same course. 

11. Understand and carefully use the "Socratic Method"  -- I find that to be the best way to teach but it works usually on a one-to-one mentor-mentee style of teaching and not so much at a classroom level. I use the Socratic Method when assessing any architectural design. I almost never, would comment on the end-product of the student. I never give focused advice such as "Why don't you shift the staircase to this location?" etc. Instead, I start with a position of innocence and honestly try to really "buy into" the students design. Such as "Wow, you made the staircase here. That is really good" Then I go on to raise another point that can be contradictory for the location the student had used for the staircase. 

The danger of this way of making the student surface his/her own internal contradiction is that if done carelessly, it can turn into sarcasm -- or at the very least, it points out ironical and comical situations. The biggest irony being that you started by wanting to accept and "buy into" the design. But then you pointed out contradictions -- making the student wary of you.

Students can feel insulted -- especially if they have worked hard for days on it -- and are exhausted. 

Socrates was very famous for getting people irritated by the way he encouraged questioning in the other person. A skilfully done "socratic method" exercise can be deeply disturbing to the student. In case of Socrates, it resulted in so much irritation in his audience, that he was forced to drink Hemlock! The socratic method and the above issue of "socratic irony" is widely discussed on the net. Lots of material there on how to do this. However, it takes a lot of time to get this method right. 

I am still developing this for my teaching. It is only recently that I find that I am being found less irritating to some students... hehehehe.... I know, for example, do end up bit irritating on Facebook to some. But the rewards are enormous. Good students invariably grow leaps and bounds because of this, and they thank you for it -- because they really OWN their  internal learning process